From the announcement that Facebook will be changing its corporate name to Meta, to the rise in ‘fictional’ TikTok influencers (where tech and production companies are aiming to create a ‘metaverse’ equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in real time), the word ‘meta’ is being thrown around at a rate of knots— but what on earth does it actually mean?
Meta as a standalone term means “after” or “beyond”, however when compounded with other English words, it often transforms to signify “change” or “alteration.” Understanding the metaverse, however, is not as simple as breaking down a single definition. The recent moves from Facebook have been explained as a shift in focus from social media to virtual and augmented reality, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sharing that the company will be investing $10 billion USD into the project and product rebranding. Defining the metaverse as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.” Zuckerberg explained “We have a new North Star to help bring the metaverse to life,” he said during the annual company conference, Facebook Connect. “We have a new name that reflects the full breadth of what we do and the future that we want to help build. From now on, we’re going to be metaverse first, not Facebook first.”
While the metaverse has different meanings from expert to expert, it is loosely defined as “the Internet” but more specifically an interconnected, augmented reality virtual space that real people share in real time— essentially an overarching, accessible, in some ways fictional universe. In breaking down the metaverse however, its history is helpful. From Tron to Jumanji to more recently, Free Guy; video games, or the crossover between them and real life is a concept that has been explored in pop culture for almost 30 years. Coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel, Snow Crash, the ‘metaverse’ referred to a realistic virtual world, inhabited by avatars of real people— this concept was solidified with Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel and then 2018 movie adaption, Ready Player One: the synopsis of which includes the main character hiding the key to his fortune in a virtual reality, for a worthy player to find after his death.
In 2021 however, knowing what the metaverse will look like or how it will manifest is almost impossible to predict. This is partly because it relies on technology that does not functionally exist yet, for example joining the metaverse at this point in time almost exclusively relies on augmented and virtual reality headsets— tech that is not yet affordable or easily integrated into real life.
We have also been conditioned to think of the metaverse as being exclusively gamified and competition driven but how most of the tech world envisions it is slightly different. Tyler Ishida of Sony Electronics tells Fast Company: “The metaverse may appear as ‘real life’ for those participating, thanks to the level of resolution and quality of today’s technology. It’s all pointing toward a more immersive entertainment experience that engages all senses, while staying true to the creator’s intent”. But despite the metaverse beginning as entertainment, Ishida sees consumer functionality becoming the main driver, explaining “there are plenty of other applications I can easily picture: education and research, industrial, even IT and security. I know first-hand that we have the display, image, and key sensor technology available today and other ways we can engage within the metaverse are coming online quickly.”
So, while the closest thing we have to virtual worlds currently exist in the gaming sphere on platforms like Roblox and through Microsoft’s Fortnite, the future of the metaverse will have connection and consumer functionality as a much higher priority— which comes as no surprise considering the investment from Facebook. When it comes to ownership of the metaverse, something the US government specifically has grappled with in struggling to hold big tech accountable, Facebook itself has acknowledged the metaverse “isn’t a single product one company can build alone. Just like the Internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not.” In this way, each company contributing to the metaverse acts a building block for a larger, integrated product that will in theory transcend individual companies, products or physical distance.
While the metaverse is an overwhelming concept to say the least, Facebook’s investment means we can likely expect rapid development in the space in coming years. So get your VR glasses ready, we’ll meet you in the Internet 2.0